Supposedly cannons arrived a thousand years later in Egyptian history, when Napoleon’s military was accused of shooting cannon balls at the Great Sphinx for some horrid reason. However, I did learn that canons (spelled with one ‘n’) really did exist of a different variety; Egyptian canons are a standard the artists adhered to when creating art. Assigned to write a descriptive essay on an ancient work of art for my art history class, I searched for something that I thought would be relatively easy to write about. Antiquities from the Near East, Greece, Rome and Egypt, adorned the lower hall of the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. I figured the action-packed fragment from a tomb, gave me the most visual data to come up with something. It’s absolutely the most boring essay I’ve written, but apparently my professor thought it was interesting and descriptive enough for an A. To absorb it all, I replicated it in watercolors and colored pencils. Below, is my art and information on exactly what the Egyptian canons are. Thanks to my cell phone for taking a decent photo of the art behind glass.
Relief From The Tomb Of Mentuemhet
Constructed in Thebes, Mentuemhet’s tomb is the largest for a non-royal in Egypt. He was the fourth priest of Amun, mayor of Thebes and governor of Upper Egypt from 690 to 656 B.C. Taken from his tomb, is a small polychromatic relief fragment titled, “Relief From The Tomb Of Mentuemhet”, dated from the Third Intermediate Period, Dynasties 25-26, ca 660 B.C. While the artist is unknown, this bas relief is distinctly Egyptian. It is carved from limestone and is approximately 11” width x 9” height and 1-¾” depth. The relief, identified as number 212, can be viewed at the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, California in the Hall of Antiquities ancient art gallery. Generally, the 25th dynastic period in Egyptian history was a period of civil and political unrest, but from observing the detailed relief fragment from Mentuemhet’s tomb, it could be assumed that it was a time of productivity, prosperity and abundance, illustrated using traditional artistic canons.
Since the bas relief is a fragment from the Mentuemhet’s tomb, it is only displaying a part of the entire relief, but it is clear that the subject is workers for the revered Mentuemhet and its theme is the preparation and deliverance of food for him. The fragment is divided horizontally into two scenes. Above the division, the focal point is a dark male kneeling at a slanted table, gutting a fish. In front of the table are a stack of filleted fish. Behind the male worker is another figure, but due to fragmentation, only the legs are showing. Below the divisional line, is a female balancing a basket of fruit on her head with hieroglyphic inscriptions on either side of her. According to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the hieroglyphics inventory the food to be delivered to Mentuemhet.1 Following the woman is a male also carrying a basket of food on his head, but only part of his figure is displayed by the fragmentation. The bas relief’s assortment of visual material is intriguing with its active and pleasant theme.
The relief fragment portrays distinct elements of form and composition. The most dominant element of form are the horizontal lines throughout the relief including the divisional line through the middle of the fragment, the top rim of the baskets and strong horizontal lines contained within the hieroglyphics. The art utilizes color pigmentation including dark sienna for the male, light goldenrod yellow for the woman, blue on the tail fins of the fish and perhaps white. The artwork does not use light as a subject matter, however, since it is a bas relief, shadows are cast, influencing three-dimensionality. Each figure and object contain carved details creating texture. The figures and objects are distinctly separate but all are closely spaced and have angular qualities. Compositionally, there is repetitive shapes that include two figures on the bottom with the same posture. Not only are the figures balancing baskets on their heads, hieroglyphics flank either side of the woman to further promote symmetry. With the inclusion of a wide variety of artistic forms and attention to composition, there is quite a bit of visual details to absorb and takes several times to look over and process all of the information.
The stylistic elements have been applied in two sections and placed in groups but all tie together, alluding to a sense of unity, productivity, and movement. In the top section of the relief, there is steady movement toward the right. There is a male stepping right toward the fish preparer. The worker which is the dominant focal point of the top half of the relief is also facing right, gutting a fish. The stacked fish in front of the worker appear to be swimming off to the right. In the bottom section of the relief are the female and male basket carriers whom are moving in the opposite direction of the worker. It is as if they are completing a production line that moves toward the Governor. Not only was the artist conscious of form and composition, the stylistic figures are applied in a way that allude to a group working together in unity.
The unknown artist utilized all traditional Egyptian canons. The most prominent canon is the use of the ground line dividing the top and bottom scenes. The second most prominent feature is the “above is behind” canon. It could be interpreted that the fish preparer is actually behind the basket carriers on the bottom. The filleted fish is also indicative of above is behind. They appear to be swimming off to the right, but in fact they are stacked fish. The third canon used is twisted perspective; each figure’s body is facing outward and their heads are in profile view, facing left. The fourth canon is hierarchical scale, which is the size of the figure denote social status. In this case, all four figures are of equal size; thus, they are of equal status in society. The figures are also proportionate with no stylized deformities like the art of the Amarna period. The relief also adheres to the convention that males are depicted with dark skin and females with light skin. Notable, is that they display emotion, having expressions of happiness or contentedness. The relief is a good example of the stylistic elements traditionally used throughout Egyptian history.
This small fragment, not even a foot in diameter, is a bounty of visual elements all tied together in a narrative for the great Mentuemhet who had the largest tomb for a non-royal. The viewer can peek in the window of time that was over a thousand years ago to interpret the era as being prosperous and peaceful just by the depiction of productivity and abundance. Perhaps Mentuemhet had a large appetite and wanted to make sure he had plenty of food for the afterlife. In any case, “Relief From The Tomb Of Mentuemhet” is a fascinating work of art on permanent display at the Legion of Honor Museum.
1 “FRAME|WORK: An Ancient Egyptian Relief from the Tomb of Mentuemhet.” Fine Arts
Museums of San Francisco. California. Web.